Sunday, October 29, 2017

Excerpts from an Interview with Leo Lowenthal


I was a rebel, and everything that was then oppositional, that is, to quote Benjamin, on the side of the losers in world history, attracted me as if by magic. I was a socialist, a supporter of psychoanalysis and of phenomenology in neo-Kantian circles. I took a job that brought me in contact with Eastern European Jews, something that, for example, was extremely embarrassing for my father and for Adorno's. . . . It was nothing short of a syncretic accumulation in my brain and heart of aspirations, tendencies, and philosophies that stood in opposition to the status quo. I still vividly remember reading Lukács's Theory of the Novel and his indictment of "the infamy of the status quo." This formulation summed up my fundamental feelings—namely, to hate and reject as "infamous" all elements of the status quo. This was deeply rooted in me. 

Well, then, in [my] everyday life it really made no difference if one was a Jew or not. One could go into practically any hotel, join almost any club. We always laughed about the fact—precisely because it was such a phenomenon of the fringe—that the island Borkum didn't allow any Jews. I only learned about a kind of anti-Semitism—that which made it impossible for one to go to certain restaurants, hotels, or clubs—here in America. To be sure, I had heard about this already in Germany, but I couldn't believe it.

 Believe it or not, in W.W.I, I ended up in a workers' regiment made up of sons of proletarians and poor peasants. Poor devils, rough, sometimes brutal, uneducated men. We had to live in the barracks and eat the horrible swill there; we weren't allowed to have our own uniforms but were given the sweat-covered uniforms of previous "grunts." Besides drilling and shooting (which I was really not good at—the rifle butt would almost always recoil and hit me on the cheek), we were mainly kept busy loading rails for railroad tracks. Once a rail fell on my fingers; you can still see my crooked fingernail. I was the constant object of mockery. At that time I experienced the potential anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism of the German proletariat and peasants.

It was an awful time. I tried everything to get out of there. I volunteered for the front; I would have preferred to die. I was rejected. I then applied to become a cadet officer so that, as an officer, I could escape those circumstances. Refused. All of this was for me—and I am not exaggerating—a kind of anticipatory concentration-camp experience. It certainly contributed to the strengthening of my alleged elitist arrogance as an intellectual. As you know—we've discussed it often enough—I don't consider the accusation of elitism an insult, but rather praise. We felt that the war was already lost, and that we were thus involved with a fundamentally meaningless business. Sometime I'll show you a couple of pictures of me as a soldier in 1918 along with my company. Looking at these photos, one might say that I should demand a veteran's pension from the American government! I was really the epitome of a "sad sack," a personal representation of the "stab-in-the-back" legend, so to speak.
But enough of that.

I attended lectures on philosophy: that was part of the Marxist tradition—it was necessary to be educated philosophically if one wanted to be a young nonconformist, a revolutionary thinker. I should remind you once again that I was fundamentally imbued with the conviction—don't forget, this was 1920, 1921—that the world revolution was around the corner and that this whole bourgeois lecture business would soon be done with.

We always perceived ourselves in opposition to the status quo; we were radical nonconformists. We didn't want to play along. Probably if we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have survived. Ultimately the thought of the disasters that resulted from "playing along" never left us. Everything we did later in the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt (already at that time it was known in the academic community as "Café Marx") was tinged with this radical conviction. The whole atmosphere of the Institute, not just the influence of Max Horkheimer, allowed me to further develop my view of the world, of nature, and of life. Of course, the basis for this was already there, characterized essentially by a concern for independence. This is best captured by our slogan of nicht mitmachen, not playing the game.

So, I came to America in 1934, and in 1935 I wanted to take a vacation with my wife for the first time. We went for advice to a very elegant travel agency in Rockefeller Center. They gave me the addresses of some twenty hotels and resorts to which I then wrote, always adding at the end, "Please tell me whether Jews are welcome." I had been advised to do this by friends who had already lived some time in America. Of these twenty letters—and you have to keep in mind that this was 1935, at the high point of the depression in America—at least half weren't answered at all. Some of the others wrote that they generally rented to older people, which was quite ridiculous, since I hadn't mentioned my age at all. And others wrote that of course they had nothing against Jews but that we might feel "uncomfortable" with their other guests. So, in short, we suddenly discovered that something like a real everyday anti-Semitism did exist here and that as a Jew one couldn't freely take part in all social spheres. That was a nasty disappointment. That hotels and clubs, even whole professions, were simply closed to Jews—that didn't yet exist in Germany to such an extent. German anti-Semitism in relation to other European varieties of anti-Semitism is still an issue. Look, Jews were driven out of England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Turkey, and who knows where else. That sort of thing was quite rare in Germany until Hitler came. To be sure, then he drove the Jews straight into the gas chamber.

Dubiel: During the early 1930s, when you all defined your theoretical direction still as materialistic, you still considered yourselves, at least morally, part of the labor movement. This definitely changed in 1936 (I mention this date because of Horkheimer's classic essay). Since then you have considered yourselves as, in Adorno's apt description, a Flaschenpost [a message in a bottle]—a lonely, marginal group critically examining the course of the world.
Lowenthal: I agree with that.Here, as well as in most of Western Europe, the so-called proletariat is now a petit-bourgeois group with a massive interest in the status quo. Soviet Communism is a perversion of a theory, a moral system, and a style of thought that are essentially good. Hitler's fascism, in contrast, is bad for the very reason that its basic conception of man is inhuman. At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s a metaphysical and basically antihistorical reaction occurred in Germany: Husserl and his followers, the materialist metaphysics of Nicolai Hartmann, Max Scheler, Jung's psychology, Ludwig Klages, and a whole configuration of new "perennial philosophies." Early Nazi ideology was also an ahistorical, pseudo-metaphysical play with history and society. Our group attempted to trace the historical self-consciousness that had been achieved; to heighten critical historical consciousness was our theoretical agenda. Is this what you are after?

When I took a walk with Horkheimer in the summer of 1934, he said that fascism in Germany had one positive effect, namely the politicization of society. This had never occurred so extensively, throughout the entire population. People now found that what happened in the political sphere concerned them directly, and this meant an end to public apathy as a characteristic of German political life—a topic about which I have written frequently. Such a politicization of the population is contrary to the interests and ideology of big capital.
Dubiel: This is only a marginal note: Is it not surprising that this apathy should, immediately after 1945, reappear more strongly than ever before in German history?

Lowenthal: This only proves our thesis that fascism creates a new political context characterized by the total mobilization of society, where everyone is a fellow prisoner, fellow culprit, and conscious fellow traveler of the political order. When this authoritarian and totalitarian terror apparatus disappears, the society falls back into public apathy—everywhere, not only in Germany. Fascism has not succeeded in politicizing the American nation; during World War II the population here was as unpolitical and uninvolved as ever. Dubiel: So, we could reformulate: Developed capitalist societies produce the socioeconomic conditions under which fascism can develop. But when the political apparatus of the society organized by capital has fallen into fascist hands, that system takes on a new quality no longer compatible with the interests of finance capital.
Lowenthal: This is exactly what I meant. This was our theory.

Let me repeat: this economistic interpretation is one-sided. We surely would not have feared to remain in Switzerland merely because big capital was in power. We feared that a specifically fascist political culture would arise in Europe and that the inner and outer realms of one's life would no longer be secure.

We anticipated of the decline of the Weimar Republic and the preparation of our flight abroad, along with our conviction, at that time, that the spread of fascism was more likely than a world war. We had left for the United States and built there an island of German radical intellectuals. This in itself was rather significant. If I were to elaborate on all of this in detail it would add up to a unique fusion of intellectual talent, worldwide political perspectives, and a far-ranging imagination molded by an upper-class Jewish lifestyle. None of us believed that all this would be confirmed by the reputation earned by the Frankfurt group. Nor could I say with certainty that I am happy about all this, because I am not sure whether this "integration" isn't also part of this society's ability to integrate and thereby defuse everything. But there it is. First of all, it was a miracle we survived and were able to overcome all the obstacles to emigration, to rise eventually from the ashes from the 1950s onward. For we really have become an ineradicable part of Western intellectual life and, in a certain sense, of political life. I recall having heard in intellectual and personal conversations the reproach that one could not always be critical, that sometimes one should also be constructive. We were always scandalous troublemakers. You are familiar with the famous reproach to Erich Kästner: "Herr Kästner, and what about the positive aspects?" Well, it is exactly the negative that was the positive: this consciousness of not going along, the refusal. The essence of Critical Theory is really the inexorable analysis of what is.

Although I do not agree with Horkheimer's excessively religious symbolism during his last years, when he defined the "completely other" of this society by referring to the name of a God who must not be named, this reticence points to something that unites us. What man can do in freedom should not be anticipated, and one must always say no to what is happening because it is not happening in freedom. We cannot escape from Hegel's antithetical position. How could we really do so? After all, the synthesis is to be made by the subjects themselves. We are the involved collaborators of the negative phase of the dialectical process. It was this belief that held us together and gave us so much strength. It helped us avoid seduction by reality, which is not to say that we do not, on occasion, enjoy the good things life has to offer. Yet none of us has ever succumbed to the Faustian warning: "If ever I say to any moment: “Linger, you are so wonderful."

 To put it in even stronger terms: art teaches, and mass culture is learned; therefore, a sociological analysis of art must be cautious, supplementary, and selective, whereas a sociological analysis of mass culture must be all-inclusive, for its products are nothing more than the phenomena and symptoms of the process of the individual's self-resignation in a wholly administered society.

The utopian-messianic motif, which is deeply rooted in Jewish metaphysics and mysticism, played a significant role for Benjamin, surely also for Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, and for myself. In his later years, when he ventured—a bit too far for my taste—into concrete religious symbolism, Horkheimer frequently said (and on this point I agree with him completely) that the Jewish doctrine that the name of God may not be spoken or even written should be adhered to. The name of God is not yet fulfilled, and perhaps it will never be fulfilled; nor is it for us to determine if, when, and how it will be fulfilled for those who come after us. I believe that the essential thing about practical socialism that so shocked us is the idea that one is permitted to plan for someone else. The notion of something perhaps unattainable, perhaps unnameable, but which holds the messianic hope of fulfillment—I suppose this idea is very Jewish; it is certainly a motif in my thinking, and I suppose it was for my friends as well—but quite certainly it was for Benjamin a shining example of the irrevocable commitment to hope that remains with us "just for the sake of the hopeless."

No comments:

Post a Comment